AS a rule, there is no surer way to the dislike of men than to behave well where they have behaved badly. In this instance, happily, Malluch was an exception to the rule. The affair he had just witnessed raised Ben-Hur in his estimation, since he could not deny him courage and address; could he now get some insight into the young man’s history, the results of the day would not be all unprofitable to good master Simonides.
On the latter point, referring to what he had as yet learned, two facts comprehended it all—the subject of his investigation was a Jew, and the adopted son of a famous Roman. Another conclusion which might be of importance was beginning to formulate itself in the shrewd mind of the emissary; between Messala and the son of the duumvir there was a connection of some kind. But what was it?—and how could it be reduced to assurance? With all his sounding, the ways and means of solution were not at call. In the heat of the perplexity, Ben-Hur himself came to his help. He laid his hand on Malluch’s arm and drew him out of the crowd, which was already going back to its interest in the gray old priest and the mystic fountain.
“Good Malluch,” he said, stopping, “may a man forget his mother?”
The question was abrupt and without direction, and therefore of the kind which leaves the person addressed in a state of confusion. Malluch looked into Ben-Hur’s face for a hint of meaning, but saw, instead, two bright-red spots, one on each cheek, and in his eyes traces of what might have been repressed tears; then he answered, mechanically, “No!” adding, with fervor, “never;” and a moment after, when he began to recover himself, “If he is an Israelite, never!” And when at length he was completely recovered—“My first lesson in the synagogue was the Shema; my next was the saying of the son of Sirach, ‘Honor thy father with thy whole soul, and forget not the sorrows of thy mother.’”
The red spots on Ben-Hur’s face deepened.
“The words bring my childhood back again; and, Malluch, they prove you a genuine Jew. I believe I can trust you.”
Ben-Hur let go the arm he was holding, and caught the folds of the gown covering his own breast, and pressed them close, as if to smother a pain, or a feeling there as sharp as a pain.
“My father,” he said, “bore a good name, and was not without honor in Jerusalem, where he dwelt. My mother, at his death, was in the prime of womanhood; and it is not enough to say of her she was good and beautiful: in her tongue was the law of kindness, and her works were the praise of all in the gates, and she smiled at days to come. I had a little sister, and she and I were the family, and we were so happy that I, at least, have never seen harm in the saying of the old rabbi, ‘God could not be everywhere, and, therefore, he made mothers.’ One day an accident happened to a Roman in authority as he was riding past our house at the head of a cohort; the legionaries burst the gate and rushed in and seized us. I have not seen my mother or sister since. I cannot say they are dead or living. I do not know what became of them. But, Malluch, the man in the chariot yonder was present at the separation; he gave us over to the captors; he heard my mother’s prayer for her children, and he laughed when they dragged her away. Hardly may one say which graves deepest in memory, love or hate. To-day I knew him afar—and, Malluch—”
He caught the listener’s arm again.
“And, Malluch, he knows and takes with him now the secret I would give my life for: he could tell if she lives, and where she is, and her condition; if she—no, THEY—much sorrow has made the two as one—if they are dead, he could tell where they died, and of what, and where their bones await my finding.”
“And will he not?”
“I am a Jew, and he is a Roman.”
“But Romans have tongues, and Jews, though ever so despised, have methods to beguile them.”
“For such as he? No; and, besides, the secret is one of state. All my father’s property was confiscated and divided.”
Malluch nodded his head slowly, much as to admit the argument; then he asked anew, “Did he not recognize you?”
“He could not. I was sent to death in life, and have been long since accounted of the dead.”
“I wonder you did not strike him,” said Malluch, yielding to a touch of passion.
“That would have been to put him past serving me forever. I would have had to kill him, and Death, you know, keeps secrets better even than a guilty Roman.”
The man who, with so much to avenge, could so calmly put such an opportunity aside must be confident of his future or have ready some better design, and Malluch’s interest changed with the thought; it ceased to be that of an emissary in duty bound to another. Ben-Hur was actually asserting a claim upon him for his own sake. In other words, Malluch was preparing to serve him with good heart and from downright admiration.
After brief pause, Ben-Hur resumed speaking.
“I would not take his life, good Malluch; against that extreme the possession of the secret is for the present, at least, his safeguard; yet I may punish him, and so you give me help, I will try.”
“He is a Roman,” said Malluch, without hesitation; “and I am of the tribe of Judah. I will help you. If you choose, put me under oath—under the most solemn oath.”
“Give me your hand, that will suffice.”
As their hands fell apart, Ben-Hur said, with lightened feeling, “That I would charge you with is not difficult, good friend; neither is it dreadful to conscience. Let us move on.”
They took the road which led to the right across the meadow spoken of in the description of the coming to the fountain. Ben-Hur was first to break the silence.
“Do you know Sheik Ilderim the Generous?”
“Where is his Orchard of Palms? or, rather, Malluch, how far is it beyond the village of Daphne?”
Malluch was touched by a doubt; he recalled the prettiness of the favor shown him by the woman at the fountain, and wondered if he who had the sorrows of a mother in mind was about to forget them for a lure of love; yet he replied, “The Orchard of Palms lies beyond the village two hours by horse, and one by swift camel.”
“Thank you; and to your knowledge once more. Have the games of which you told me been widely published? and when will they take place?”
The questions were suggestive; and if they did not restore Malluch his confidence, they at least stimulated his curiosity.
“Oh yes, they will be of ample splendor. The prefect is rich, and could afford to lose his place; yet, as is the way with successful men, his love of riches is nowise diminished; and to gain a friend at court, if nothing more, he must make ado for the Consul Maxentius, who is coming hither to make final preparations for a campaign against the Parthians. The money there is in the preparations the citizens of Antioch know from experience; so they have had permission to join the prefect in the honors intended for the great man. A month ago heralds went to the four quarters to proclaim the opening of the Circus for the celebration. The name of the prefect would be of itself good guarantee of variety and magnificence, particularly throughout the East; but when to his promises Antioch joins hers, all the islands and the cities by the sea stand assured of the extraordinary, and will be here in person or by their most famous professionals. The fees offered are royal.”
“And the Circus—I have heard it is second only to the Maximus.”
“At Rome, you mean. Well, ours seats two hundred thousand people, yours seats seventy-five thousand more; yours is of marble, so is ours; in arrangement they are exactly the same.”
“Are the rules the same?”
“If Antioch dared be original, son of Arrius, Rome would not be the mistress she is. The laws of the Circus Maximus govern except in one particular: there but four chariots may start at once, here all start without reference to number.”
“That is the practise of the Greeks,” said Ben-Hur.
“Yes, Antioch is more Greek than Roman.”
“So then, Malluch, I may choose my own chariot?”
“Your own chariot and horses. There is no restriction upon either.”
While replying, Malluch observed the thoughtful look on Ben-Hur’s face give place to one of satisfaction.
“One thing more now, O Malluch. When will the celebration be?”
“Ah! your pardon,” the other answered. “To-morrow—and the next day,” he said, counting aloud, “then, to speak in the Roman style, if the sea-gods be propitious, the consul arrives. Yes, the sixth day from this we have the games.”
“The time is short, Malluch, but it is enough.” The last words were spoken decisively. “By the prophets of our old Israel! I will take to the reins again. Stay! a condition; is there assurance that Messala will be a competitor?”
Malluch saw now the plan, and all its opportunities for the humiliation of the Roman; and he had not been true descendant of Jacob if, with all his interest wakened, he had not rushed to a consideration of the chances. His voice actually trembled as he said, “Have you the practise?”
“Fear not, my friend. The winners in the Circus Maximus have held their crowns these three years at my will. Ask them—ask the best of them—and they will tell you so. In the last great games the emperor himself offered me his patronage if I would take his horses in hand and run them against the entries of the world.”
“But you did not?”
Malluch spoke eagerly.
“I—I am a Jew”—Ben-Hur seemed shrinking within himself as he spoke—“and, though I wear a Roman name, I dared not do professionally a thing to sully my father’s name in the cloisters and courts of the Temple. In the palaestræ I could indulge practise which, if followed into the Circus, would become an abomination; and if I take to the course here, Malluch, I swear it will not be for the prize or the winner’s fee.”
“Hold—swear not so!” cried Malluch. “The fee is ten thousand sestertii—a fortune for life!”
“Not for me, though the prefect trebled it fifty times. Better than that, better than all the imperial revenues from the first year of the first Cæsar—I will make this race to humble my enemy. Vengeance is permitted by the law.”
Malluch smiled and nodded as if saying, “Right, right—trust me a Jew to understand a Jew.”
“The Messala will drive,” he said, directly. “He is committed to the race in many ways—by publication in the streets, and in the baths and theaters, the palace and barracks; and, to fix him past retreat, his name is on the tablets of every young spendthrift in Antioch.”
“In wager, Malluch?”
“Yes, in wager; and every day he comes ostentatiously to practise, as you saw him.”
“Ah! and that is the chariot, and those the horses, with which he will make the race? Thank you, thank you, Malluch! You have served me well already. I am satisfied. Now be my guide to the Orchard of Palms, and give me introduction to Sheik Ilderim the Generous.”
“To-day. His horses may be engaged to-morrow.”
“You like them, then?”
Ben-Hur answered with animation,
“I saw them from the stand an instant only, for Messala then drove up, and I might not look at anything else; yet I recognized them as of the blood which is the wonder as well as the glory of the deserts. I never saw the kind before, except in the stables of Cæsar; but once seen, they are always to be known. To-morrow, upon meeting, I will know you, Malluch, though you do not so much as salute me; I will know you by your face, by your form, by your manner; and by the same signs I will know them, and with the same certainty. If all that is said of them be true, and I can bring their spirit under control of mine, I can—”
“Win the sestertii!” said Malluch, laughing.
“No,” answered Ben-Hur, as quickly. “I will do what better becomes a man born to the heritage of Jacob—I will humble mine enemy in a most public place. But,” he added, impatiently, “we are losing time. How can we most quickly reach the tents of the sheik?”
Malluch took a moment for reflection.
“It is best we go straight to the village, which is fortunately near by; if two swift camels are to be had for hire there, we will be on the road but an hour.”
“Let us about it, then.”
The village was an assemblage of palaces in beautiful gardens, interspersed with khans of princely sort. Dromedaries were happily secured, and upon them the journey to the famous Orchard of Palms was begun.